Which individual is to blame for the most death and human suffering this year?
Most people would quickly name Saddam Hussein, the rapist of Kuwait and scourge of the Kurds. And they would be correct - at this time.But by the end of 1991, a new world champion in mass murder will likely have emerged. He is Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, head of the military junta that is tormenting the hapless people of Sudan.
Unlike Saddam, who kills with napalm and phosphorus bombs, Bashir kills by cold indifference: He simply does not care whether his subjects die of starvation.
Sudan, the largest country in Africa, has always been miserably poor. But since Bashir and like-minded military officers seized power from a democratically elected government in June 1989, the air has turned lethal.
The new rulers in Khartoum are Islamic fundamentalists. They hate modernism and started by arresting and sometimes killing "Westernized" politicians, doctors, lawyers and teachers. They purged the civil service of competent officials.
And then they imposed Islamic civil law, or sharia, with its traditional penalties such as amputation of a hand for theft and stoning to death for adultery.
More than a year ago, satellite photographs told the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that Sudan, wracked by fighting and drought, was threatened by a major famine. Experts said as many as 9 million of the country's 25 million people were at risk.
Dozens of international, governmental and private relief agencies mobilized to meet the threat. Incredibly, they encountered not only Khartoum's indifference but also its hostility and outright sabotage.
The Bashir regime, although inept, is obsessed with self-reliance. For many critical months it denied any food shortages. The U.N. and other donors were paralyzed; they needed an invitation from the host country before they could act.
Sudan's air force bombed some relief operations in the south, contending that they aided the rebels. Khartoum tried to grossly overcharge agencies for transporting food. And it schemed to divert aid from hungry peasants to the military and the junta's urban supporters.
In a major crime against its people, the government last year exported grain from previous harvests, depleting its reserves as new crops failed.
"Very likely we'll see hundreds of thousands die in Sudan," said Frederick Machmer, director of the Khartoum office of the U.S. Agency for International Development. "Those deaths will increase the longer we delay."
If the toll rises above one million, as it might, the Butcher of Khartoum will replace the Butcher of Baghdad as No. 1 in their grisly trade. Some honor.